Writing on the Wall
A bunch of young artists is turning graffiti into a powerful mode of expressing dissent, and it’s making the state squirm Graffiti is the art of the underdog, the creative rebellion of the powerless. In the face of oppression, it is a devastatingly effective way of shouting dissent that would otherwise be whispered. Kashmir, this land of perpetual rebellion, offers an invitingly expansive canvas for this old art form. Yet, as a profoundly political art, graffiti has become popular here relatively recently. “Graffiti is a primal form of marking a space. From the time of the caveman, it has been used by people to convey messages,” says Showkat Kathjoo of the Fine Arts College. And what it expresses depends on who does it and where, he adds. In America, for instance, gangs usegraffiti to mark their territories; in Kashmir, the art is employed to express dissent against “state oppression”. When Imran, 36, an academician from downtown Srinagar was in school in the 1990s, he and his friends would paint slogans on lamp posts in old Srinagar. “We would wait until it got dark and the army left the streets to go out and paint slogans like ,Go India, Go Back› on electric poles,” he says. The idea, he adds, was to wear the soldiers out: they would be forced to man the street and “stare at the poles the whole time lest we painted anti-India slogans on them”. While the art of political graffiti has since evolved beyond the scrawling of catchy anti-India slogans, the craft remains about the same. It basically involves picking out a place where the public eye is easily drawn and then creating graffiti without getting caught. It›s a craft a group of youth from Barzulla, Srinagar, have nearly perfected. Hamza, 23, who leads this group of four says they work on walls along the airport road, hoping their messages are read by visitors to the city. “Tourists have to commute through here. It’s a perfect place for us to let people from outside know what we’re witnessing here.” Hamza says his group starting painting graffiti in 2008, taking inspiration from videos showing graffiti on the walls in Gaza. “After watching some Palestinian videos, we realised it was the best way to express ourselves. It allows our generation of educated youth to share their views and leaves a great impression on the people who see it.” Hamza and his friends go about their work quite methodically. They pick a spot, decide when to paint, usually after 3-4 days, and make the preparations. They do not contact each other over the phone until the day they gather again at the appointed hour to work. They take turns, in pairs, painting and keeping watch. Mostly, they use red and black spray paint; it has, in fact, become their signature. “Red signifies blood and martyrdom while black is the colour of protest,” explains Hamza. And they get a kick out of painting on the walls of pro-India politicians. The message depends on the “mood” of the time. “During elections, we paint boycott slogans. Other times, we commemorate the anniversaries of various leaders who have laid down their lives for Kashmir,” Hamza says. The style of Hamza›s graffiti, as indeed of most such artists in Kashmir, is Straight Letter. It is simple, direct, more readable and usually done in only black or white – ensuring it’s easily understood by the common folk, who don›t have much knowledge about this art form. There are, however, other artists experimenting with more complex styles. The Al Hourriya pursue the “international” styles of Burner and Mural. This kind of graffiti is usually large and intensive but difficult to understand. The Mural often employes 3D effects and is usually done by experienced artists. It also takes longer to do. Al Hourriya was started in 2007 by an artist who goes by the alias Ghalib. Its stated aim is to “take a stand against anti-social issues”. In 2010, he was joined by Uqab from Khanyar then still an engineering student in Chandigarh. After the massive Azadi protests of 2010 were put down, Uqab says he felt “Kashmiris had lost their voice”. Around this time, he happened to watch Zübeyr Şaşmaz’s Valley of the Wolves: Palestine, and he realised he could use graffiti as a mode of protest. He came back to the valley and found Ghalib. In the six years since, the duo have “raged” over many issues, from Afzal Guru’s execution to the 2012 Delhi gang rape. “Two months before Afzal Guru’s execution, we had made one graffiti condemning the act of hanging,” says Ghalib. Then, the hanging actually happened, and they protested more. Ghalib believes an artist must react to the happenings around him, and seek to reveal the “big picture”. He considers slogans of the ‘Go India, Go Back’ variety “weak”, explaining that instead of blaming an ordinary soldier for every wrong, people should be made to understand the real game that›s played in the background. That›s one reason why the duo are diehard fans of Banksy, a graffiti artist in Britain whose real identity is unknown, and they have bitten – that is graffiti world speak for copied – some of his famous works. One adorns the Bund wall near General Post Office, Srinagar, where they have stenciled Banksy’s “Rage”, which depicts a protester throwing a bouquet of flowers. “The aim was to show that if our youth are heard and treated well, instead of throwing stones, they would throw flowers,” explains Uqab. Another work nearby illustrates a face but with Kalashnikovs whose barrels are bent for eyes. “It shows that while the Indian state may have managed to silence the guns in the valley, the fire for the struggle has not died out yet,” says Uqab. Their most famous graffiti is “PSA Zone”, burned on the Bund wall just ahead of a visit by an Amnesty International team in 2013. The term caught on quickly. The duo had planned to work the length of the Bund wall from GPO to CID office but were thwarted by the police’s sudden crackdown on graffiti. Around this time, Al Hourriya had inducted several new members from across Kashmir who wanted to “learn the art and disseminate it” in their respective places. Ghalib and Uqab took them graffititing at Barbarshah, Dalgate, Nigeen and Hazratbal in Srinagar so they could learn the ropes. But when the police went after graffiti artists after slogans such as “Go India, Go Back” and “Welcome Taliban” appeared on the walls of the high-security Hari Parbat fort in April 2013, – they even filed an FIR under the Unlawful Activities Act against unknown persons for painting the anti-national graffiti — Al Hourriya›s new members got scared and started leaving one by one. Ghalib and Uqab, however, wouldn›t be cowed down even though the crackdown made it more difficult to paint as frequently. Now, they do a graffiti once in about six months, and only at their respective native places. Uqab uses the wall of the school in his neighbourhood as his canvas, while Ghalib has chosen the wall of a playground to express his thoughts. Both insist they do not make graffiti supporting the Taliban or the ISIS, which seems to be appearing all over the place. Uqab believes Kashmiris do not need the Taliban or the ISIS as they would only hijack their cause. Ghalib says it isn›t easy to create his art, not least because most people don›t taken kindly to their walls being “defaced”. But he›s determined to keep at it. “Many a time people have rebuked me for vandalising their walls. Once the caretaker of mosque scolded me for drawing on its wall and told me to paint it over. He only let me go after I assured him I would return the next day.” He didn’t go back, of course. He had new walls to paint.